Pulling a “Butler”: Reflections on “Historiographical Heresy: A Conference on the Legacy of Jon Butler”

Jon ButlerLast saturday, I woke up at an ungodly hour (especially for a weekend!) in order to make the 2 1/2 hour drive down to New Haven in time for the start of “Historiographical Heresy: A Conference on the Legacy of Jon Butler” (program here). The brainchild of James Bennett and Amy Koehlinger, and spearheaded on the ground by Kathryn Lofton, the one-day event commemorated the retirement of one of American religious history’s major figures. All participants were in some way students of Butler–some claimed him as their dissertation adviser, others as one of their committee members, and at least one as just an informal advisor; it was stated that this was more of a “family reunion” than a conference. Though I have zero attachment to Yale and no direct connection to Butler (besides being strongly influenced by his writing), I was warmly welcomed as an outsider and thoroughly enjoyed both the stimulating papers and discussions as well as the comraderie.

The very format of the conference was a testament to Butler’s vibrant and multifaceted career. Each contributor was urged to “pull a Butler”–i.e., taking one of their field or subfield’s “truism” and challenge, if not destroy, its presumed assumptions and shortcomings. The four panels were thus organized into four broad and eclectic themes: one on the relationship of magic, astrology, and religiosity in early America, the “jack-in-the-box” phenomenon of modern religious history (where religion just “pops up” at convenient and sporadic times in the historical narrative, rather than playing a consistent role), the myth of a coherent and connected “Great Awakening” (Christopher Grasso noted that, if for nothing else, making his students read “Enthusiasm Described and Decried” has forced them to at least use scare quotes when saying “the Great Awakening), and the problematic framework of democratic religiosity in the early republic. The second testament to Butler’s legacy was the sheer scope of topics covered at the conference–an indicator of not only Butler’s own publication history, but his mentoring ability: topics ranged from the Haitian Revolution to the idea of a “total woman” in modern Evangelical culture, from the debates over skepticism and faith in early America to the supposed Catholic Imaginary in various cultural expressions.

Yale Gothic

Yale’s gothic architecture and scenic windows are fabulous to look at–but they also make the buildings ridiculously cold in the morning, which was perhaps the conference’s only problem.

This was one of those rare conferences where you leave energized about both the field and your own work. Rather than merely being inundated with lots of information on various disparate and disjointed topics and papers, there were enough reflections on the state of the field and prognostications for where the field might go that every attendee could leave with something to work with. Since each paper used their topic of study to say something about either the field as a whole or a historical methodology in part, every session provided insights that could be appropriated for any area that touches on religion. I won’t write too much detail on the various papers because they are, well, conference papers*, not to mention this post would be exponentially longer to include enough details in order to capture the brilliance of each presentation, but perhaps three insights from three papers that stood out to me might prove worthwhile.

The first paper set the tone for the entire day, as Alison Collis Greene delivered a thoughtful and provocative take on the types of metaphors we use when discussing religion. She focused on the metaphor of “sowing seeds” and “bearing fruit”—in other words, when we look at a movement or event that didn’t seem to gain much traction or influence in the moment, but we claim that they are still important because they “sowed cultural seeds” that were later “harvested.” Not only does this make a lazy justification for focusing on seemingly small groups or moments (there are certainly reasons not to only focus on the major or mainstream topics, of course, but this shouldn’t be the only one), but it reaffirms the “jack-in-the-box” approach by assuming that religious influence and importance can disappear and reappear at any time. And by drawing our attention to possible future developments, it sometimes makes us overlook the movements in and of themselves and the substantive cultural transformations they represent.

(Warning: the second example comes from contemporary America, but I think the broader principles and tensions are still relevant.)

Second, Molly Worthen‘s paper on “Culture War as State of Nature” focused on how we frame the American culture wars, especially how we are drawn to the “contested” aspects of the “conflict”—it is termed the “culture wars,” after all. Perhaps this is a result of the cultural atmosphere itself, that we as scholars feel drawn to emphasize the ideological separation, the ongoing anxiety, the constant battles. And perhaps as an extension of the media wars, culture war historians focus on conflict and identity politics rather than the “muddled moderate.” In doing so, we often overlook shared ideas and assumptions, which better encapsulate the long-term historical and cultural transformation taking place.

Obama praying

Is Obama the embodiment of modern religious scholarship?

And finally, I come to Rachel Wheeler‘s “It’s Complicated: Native Christians, Fundamentalist Feminists, Jewish-German Patriots, and Others in the Work of Obama Generation Scholars.” In examining historical subjects, Wheeler says that modern historians are more likely to examine the “complicated” elements of religious identity because we are more aware of our own complicated identities today. We have come to recognize that identities are not absolute categories, and acknowledge that it is often impossible to place people into our own artifical and subjective binaries. But does this focus, taken to the extreme, rob us of some explanatory power? In a way, Wheeler wondered if Obama himself embodies many of the issues with religious scholars in the “Age of Obama”: we have mixed identities, transgressed boundaries, and tempting complexity, but do we lack a consistent narrative, coherent message, and a comprehensive synthesis?

I could go on and on with provocative thoughts from every conference paper. (I didn’t even touch on the anecdote of a Christian husband coming home to his wife covered in only saran wrap!) Let’s hope these papers are turned into a published volume, because such an edition would prove useful not only in scholarship but also in teaching situations because it teaches the process of religious history in such a compelling way. In all, the conference was a fitting tribute to one of the field’s monumental figures, and a testament to the field’s future.


*I must admit I am torn on the etiquette of blogging about conference papers. On the one hand, once a paper is given in a public event, it is, well, “out there” and seemingly open to study; plus, it gives the opportunity for the many who can’t make the conference to hear the primary ideas. However, just like there are issues of taking blog posts too seriously, there are potential downsides of digitally broadcasting works-in-progress without being first vetted by all the presenters: besides stealing the thunder of later publications, it might make it awkward if a person later changes their thesis or ideas as new evidence became available, and working papers are always, well, still working papers.

Also, as always, there’s the tricky thing of note-takers misunderstanding presentations, and thus these reflections should be understood as imperfect and subjective attempts to reproduce large ideas; proceed at your own risk.

If you want more incomplete and sporadic notes on the conference, see my twitter feed. I used the hashtag #butlerheresy for all my conference-related tweets.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing Benjamin. Had I known about this I might have flown up for the day, as it seemed to be a very fruitful discussion. For anyone interested there is another similar conference at Princeton on April 26 and 27 honoring Albert Raboteau.

  2. Pingback: Juvenile Instructor » “The World Needs More Books Like…”: Jon Butler Reviews Spencer Fluhman


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